For business women in China, purchasing business suits from department stores and boutiques off-the-rack is the easiest, most hassle-free option. Shanghai’s world-class shopping centers contain hundreds of choices.
However, many women, particularly expatriates, run into problems with fit when purchasing pre-made items in China. As the number of high-powered female executives increases in China, demand for custom women’s business wear is booming.
"I often buy my business clothes off-the-rack and then take them to a tailor for adjustments, like getting some parts taken in or hemmed," said Karen Lofton, an executive at Community Investment Strategies. "But the amount of time I save by buying ready-to-wear clothes I probably spend taking them back in for alterations."
For women whose forms make customization unavoidable, the increasing number of tailors serving business women is a blessing. Though many Shanghai tailors still cater exclusively to men, many stores are beginning to serve female customers. For example, Yin Aiping’s DingShang Clothes Company, located in the Shiliupu Cloth Market in Shanghai, said her shop almost exclusively dresses females. "We make clothes for both men and women, but we work more with the women," said Yin. "Women have more choices with their suits, more styles and fabrics to choose from. Men buy suits once every few years, but the look for women is always changing."
To some the term "cloth market" conjures up images of pushy salespeople, crowded shops and shoddy clothes; nevertheless, most fabric markets in China are full of women buying essentials like oxford shirts and simply-styled suits. For these items, fabric markets offer fitted products at hard-to-beat prices. At Yin’s shop, women’s two-piece suits start at just RMB450 (US$66). Also, given the relatively higher turnover of female wardrobes, durability is less of an issue for women’s suits.
This is not to say quality is irrelevant: "The fabric market is a good bet for business shirts and simple things I would like to have copied," said Sheila Seiler, primary school teacher and president of BEAN-Shanghai, a volunteer and networking organization for young professionals. "For original pieces, a professionally-trained tailor or designer is always a better deal though, because it saves time and frustration to have items made right the first time."
Patrick Tong, manager of the more expensive tailor shop Fit Well Fashion, said that the number of female patrons has steadily increased since the shop opened six years ago. He has found that female customers put more emphasis on design and style than men.
His shop, like many other high-end tailors, employs both designers and tailors to work with customers to create a satisfying product. "Our designers can help you decide what what you want. They have lots of experience with this. They have a real understanding of it all; coloring, sizing, cuts, patterns, everything," explainedTong.
To women who view their attire as an extension of themselves, these shops provide the perfect solution. The experienced staff and attention to detail have made higher-end tailor shops popular with women looking to produce unique or more complicated designs. "What we wear makes a statement. And what it comes down to is what kind of statement do you want to make?" said Lofton. "These designer-tailor combination shops are the best place to come when I want to get a more involved suit made, and I want to make sure it gets done exactly right."
However, this style comes at a price. Women’s two-piece suits at Fit Well Fashion start at RMB3,500 (US$500) for simple designs, and the price of a more intricate suit is more than RMB7,000. Though some question the price tag, others are sold.
"Price has almost never deterred me from buying or having a piece made," said Sieler. "Appearance matters in business situations and can reinforce or destroy a first impression."